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Universe W-2020: Holidaze 5
February 14th, 2018
V-Day

Le Voyage

The tickling sensation of a sleek furry tail dragging across her upper lip wakes a groggy Karen from her slumber. She slowly sits up and blindly reaches out to pet the fuzzy little culprit who woke her up before her alarm clock, but there’s no cat to be coddled. Nobody in front of her, nobody to the left of her, but when she searches to the right, still nothing. The pitter-patter of feline paws upon hardwood floor echoes from outside her bedroom – the little bugger thought he could play ding-dong-ditch. That fleppy! After a few more minutes of sitting upright with her eyes closed, Karen elects to rise and face the day, even though it’s probably only three o’clock in the morning.

Her purple satin sheets rustle as she rolls over and her feet fall into her slippers, carefully aligned with the exact spot she stands up every morning. She adorns her shiny silver-blue robe and walks out to the living room of her apartment, leaving her bed to go unmade so her cats can easily delve under the covers when she’s gone.

It appears that everybody’s up and about this morning – Boots, Winkey the One-Eyed Wonder, and Tricky are all chillin’ on the sofa, Whiskers and Tigorski the Russian Spy Kitty are having a faux melee, and Fuzzy is impatiently sitting on the kitchenette counter, flicking his tail all over the place in wait to be fed. In truth they’re all waiting to be fed, Fuzzy just gives less of a shit about hiding it than the rest of them. With a guttural groan, Karen breaks out the cans of cat food and gets to work serving her babies half a can of meaty mush each, no more and no less, no matter how much they meow at her. Their purring synchronizes as they eat, the vibration nearly rattling Karen’s artwork off the walls.

With her children fed, Karen finally gazes over to the clock – it reads 11:12. Her gaze is followed by a shriek that startles her cats out of eating, if one could imagine such a thing, for a second. Only a second though, she’s not that loud.

Distressed, agitated by her alarm clock’s failure to reach both its goals and Karen’s expectations and frantic in her movements, Karen grabs whatever clothing isn’t neatly tucked into a pile in her walk-in closet and sprints out the front door without so much as a goodbye cuddle for her babies. Drastic times call for drastic measures, as they say, and these are certainly drastic times – Karen’s never been late for work before, and her boss is… well, let’s just say there’s a reason she’s never let herself be late. Flying into the remarkably unscary elevator, she hits the button for floor forty-two and drops to the floor to take the left shoe off her right foot and vice versa. What a way to start the day.

The elevator dings and she trots out, her burgundy skirt not at all matching with her jade-green blazer, but that’s okay. She made it to work before lunch, this is her only time ever being late, and bossman will definitely see her disheveledness as a sign that she’s had a bad morning. Or he’ll just lose his shit and fire her on the spot, just like he allegedly did to Molly, the secretary that provided Karen with the clunky wooden clogs she straps on her feet today. Russian roulette: Cape Enterprises, Uncorporated edition.

With her will steeled and ready to face what comes next, Karen walks down the lobby to the glass doors and reaches for the handle. The door bucks, locked and sealed. How can this be? The business is never closed, not once in her seven years of employment under this eccentric and only occasionally psychotic man has there been a day off. Why today?

She tries the doors again, again again, and then one more time before they finally give way. Giving herself a self-validating hmph, Karen sets a single foot inside before a gigantic robotic arm grabs her, pulling her in and gently shutting the doors behind her.

Suddenly, Karen finds herself dangled over a very busy and very far down New Manhattan street. Never one to fear heights anyone can reach, Miss Page makes an exception in this most specific of situations and begins to tremble, asking the little voice in her head what she did that was so wrong, that was so vehemently evil that she deserves to be dangled like this. The little voice is unable to surmise an answer, but from above, a drastically larger and more external voice offers one, though cryptic it may be.

“Ohhhh shit, you’re still here.”

Karen follows the voice, against the wishes of her arched neck, and finds her boss, the one and only Mister Chuck Leary, clad in an uncharacteristically bright yellow suit paired with the purple tie she got him for Christmas a few years ago and no fedora, allowing his longish black hair to dangle freely for the first time in what Karen assumes is ever.

“Hey boss,” Karen yells, the wind making her voice come out as a squeak. “Sorry I’m late, my alarm clock didn’t wake me up.”

Chuck eyes her for a moment, as if trying to determine the truth of her words, then, “No, I’m sorry Karen. Usually I have you sent off on some business trip or vacation or something this time of year. The office is closed today.”

“Wait, what? Is that why my alarm clock didn’t go off, becau–”

“Karen,” Chuck says, ending her statement. “I have no fucking idea why your alarm clock didn’t go off. I don’t control everything around here, that’s more Sigmund’s shtick.”

The thought of her basement-dwelling coworker being in charge of her sleep cycle gives Karen a shiver that decides to traverse her entire spinal column before finally setting up shop in her shoulders. It’s not that Sigmund’s ever been outright creepy or mean to Karen, she just gets a weird vibe from him. Like, finding a machete sticking out of the ground in the middle of the woods kind of weird.

“Oh… well, can we change that? I’d prefer to set my own alarm clock.” Then, feeling literate(?), “If it’s all the same, gov.”

Chuck rolls his eyes. “He’s not a bad guy, he does his job here and he does it well. You should have just stayed home with your cats, it’s not his fault you decided to come into work today.

Karen’s hair flickers in the crosswind. “I… I never said he was a bad guy, I just…”

“You didn’t have to say it.”

Chuck turns and walks away, leaving Karen stuck in what is both a literal and metaphorical purgatory.

“Um… boss? BOSS?!”

“Helloooooo?”

“Chuck, are you coming back? What the fuh–” she begins to say, then stops herself. What can she say to really get his attention?

What the Chuck, dude?!”

Notes of metal shifting, grinding, and clanking resonate below. Karen tries to wiggle her body to see what’s going on down there, but the metal arm really has her good. A few moments later, Chuck pokes his head out the open window-wall above her.

“I see what you did there, but why are you still here? I told you that the office is closed today, just go home Karen.”

“Are… you’re not being serious right now, are you?”

“No, I just have a sense of humor is all. It’s a rare condition. Uh, I hope my security system is at least comfortable for you.”

“It’s not.”

“I know,” Chuck says with the faintest of smiles.

Karen very deliberately rolls her eyes like the tires of the cars below her roll down the crossing of two identical streets. They won’t be rolling when they mangle up Karen’s corpse in their wheel wells, but yanno, that’s then and this is now. “So… why’s the office closed today?”

“Well…” Chuck says, pausing to remove a strand of hair from his mouth. “Do you know what day it is, Karen?”

“Yeah, it’s February four– OHHH IT’S VALENTINE’S DAY!”

Chuck looks at her, raising an eyebrow in the process.

A moment of synapses, then, “Wait, bossdawg, you don’t like Valentine’s Day? You, an obnoxiously wealthy and successful man who I’ve never seen with a woman doesn’t like Valentine’s Day? Huh, didn’t see that one coming,” with a playful smile that doesn’t get played with.

“No, I don’t fucking like Valentine’s Day, Karen.”

“Why not, Mister Grumpy Pants? It’s so lovey, everything is red and pink… and yellow, apparently,” mocking his suit. The suit takes offense but rides the high road. “And everyone’s super nice to me, and all the boys used to buy me roses, aaaaand…” she trails on for a while, Chuck rubbing his temples the entire time.

“Okay, probably not meaning to, but you’re being a bitch.”

Chuck slaps a random spot on his tie and the security system arm loosens its grip on Karen, retracting into the building to sleep whilst Karen plummets through the air. She lets loose a horrified, blood-curdling scream as she straight drops, her already unkempt by her own standards hair getting all the more frazzled over the two and a half seconds that precedes her landing on something plushy and soft. A few minutes later, when she finally opens her eyes, Karen realizes that she only fell a couple floors and she landed on an exceptionally cushy mattress resting on a platform extending from the building. A breeze blows through her ‘brows as she embraces a stunned silence, questioning, for the first time in her life, why she stays employed at Cape Enterprises, Uncorporated.

A moment later, the window-wall to her right opens to reveal a smirk-stricken Chuck.

“What. The. Fuck. Was. That.” Karen. Says. One. Word. At. A. Time. In doing so, she allows herself to get riled up again, which is fair seeing how Chuck dropped her down the side of a building.

“Well,” Chuck begins, not breaking eye contact, “I don’t like Valentine’s Day. You kept talking about why you like Valentine’s Day. Now you’re not, and nobody got hurt. I don’t see a problem… anyway, c’mon.”

Chuck turns on his heels and walks deep into the building, the darkness swallowing his dandelion suit with the ferocity of a not-so-dandy lion.

“Wait!” Karen calls after him, not getting up from the mattress. “Where are we going?! I thought the office was closed today!”

No answer… what the hell, man? Chuck is never this uncool, his whole vibe is off today. He doesn’t even get this salty when Karen kicks his ass in their annual karaoke competition, but… well, but nothing, it looks like the mattress platform is deconstructing itself, so Karen needs to move.

She climbs into the skyscraper and walks down a dark hallway, the only guide a bright light coming from a room that doesn’t seem to get any nearer the closer to it she walks. This assessment of the situation soon proves itself false when she breeches the light and is met by a pristinely white circular room with two tunnels leading up through the ceiling. Chuck is also here, standing next to a small podium with an assortment of buttons on it, but she ignores him and takes her sweet time looking around the chamber. Chuck, who took his sweet time tormenting Karen all morning, decides to drop the grudge and press the button. As he does, two hidden latches open in the floor to reveal two contraptions, one pink and one yellow, that immediately grab Karen’s attention.

“What on Earth are those things?”

“What do they look like, woman? They’re jetpacks.”

“YOU HAVE A JETPACK ROOM AND YOU’VE NEVER SHOWN ME?!”

“Karen, the building is composed of a nearly infinite amount of nanobots that are half the size of an atom each. I can have whatever room I want to have.”

“Yeah? Well… shut up. I see two of them, is one for meeeeee?”

Chuck looks forth and back around the room, confusion fueling both his expression and the flailing of his arms through the air. “Well I don’t see anyone else in here. Yes, obviously it’s for you, strap yourself into it.”

“Fine,” Karen says defiantly. “But not because you told me to.”

Karen’s playfulness bounces off Chuck like low-caliber bullets bounce off a titanium wall. She wonders not what crawled up his ass and died there, but how many critters made the voyage, and how many surgeries he’ll need to expel their gooey corpses. Regardless, she walks over to the yellow jetpack and pokes it, unsure of how to equip it.

“Just stand in front of it,” Chuck says as he stands in front of the pink jetpack. “It’ll do all the work.”

“Wait reall–WAAH!”

In a flurry of motion and straps, the jetpack launches itself off its stand and fastens itself to Karen’s body, wrapping her in a badass flight suit with winging under the arms and between the legs and a helmet that replaces her vision with darkness. The entire process frightens her quite a bit, but she swiftly internalizes it, as she doesn’t have a comeback prepared in case she gets mocked.

A few seconds later, two jetpack-clad soldiers of the future stand side-by-side inside the blank canvas of a room. The jetpacks begin to rumble, the interior mechanisms heating up and igniting the anti-gravitational disc hidden within. A hologram of fire jets out of the rocket boosters and the pair slowly lifts a few inches off the floor before unceremoniously zooming up through the tunnels and out of the building. There they float above the city, able to see past the towering wall that keeps the rest of the planet out.

“Woooaaaaahhhhh.”

“You ask too many questions,” Chuck says through the comms device in Karen’s helmet.

“I didn’t even ask a question… but uh… where are we going?”

“See what I mean?”

With that they’re off, blasting through the sky and over the ocean from which New Manhattan protrudes until they breach the sky over New Jersey. Their destination: a large lakefront park.

Today’s an especially dreary cold’n’rainy, the cloudscape above looking grayer than an old man’s beard. The park grounds are no better – puddles of muddy slush water give the grassy fields a look of polka-dotted late-winter blunder from above. They circle the park a few times, Chuck guiding his jetpack with his mind and Karen’s jetpack following wherever Chuck’s jetpack goes. When Chuck is deciding where to land, Karen is still trying to figure out one, how she’s even flying this thing, and two, how they’re going to land without dying painfully, but Chuck’s got it covered. He eventually finds a spot and they begin their descent, the pre-programmed auto-landing software taking them down through the air slowly enough to achieve a vertical landing.

If anybody was at the park today, they’d surely be filming the spectacle. Oddly enough, jetpacks are a very rare sight outside of New Manhattan – it’s almost like the population of the Untied States is still a’tread in the rough waters of post-traumatic stress from being controlled by a government that was actually a puppet to a larger, much shadier governing body, and they haven’t been able to evolve their culture since the collapse because they’re waiting for Gruncle Fred to come back. He never will though, old boy went out to buy cigarettes around the corner years ago, and he ain’t comin back.

Must be a long line. Or a rare brand. Or a bad Gruncle.

Realistically scribing, the reason for the lack of jetpacks outside of NewMann isn’t psychosomatic copyright laws or patents or anything silly like that, it’s just that nobody’s been able to figure the technology out. Whenever a jetpack prototype is developed, the developers always scorch their assess off with the exhaust flames, literally, every single time. Sigmund really finessed the heck out of the Cape jetpacks, adding that fire hologram to divert the copycats’ attention away from the fact that the device is powered by anti-gravitational technology and hemi-atomic nanobots – he is as sly as he is unappealing to woman, and that’s saying something.

When the city was first raised, Chuck would only use the jetpack to get around, keeping strictly above the streets so everyone knew who’s in charge, even if nobody knew who he was. What he really wanted was an amphibious motorcycle, but Sigmund didn’t want to waste his time on that, so he decided to work on a full suit of power armor instead. A week later, when the power armor’s blueprint was added into the hemi-atomic nanobot database that’s woven into Chuck’s necktie, the jetpack got shelved. These days Chuck only breaks out the jetpack on very special occasions, but enough about that; our two characters have been walking for a while now, we’re going to miss the conversation.

“That’s a lot of tree bark… so what happened to you guys?”

“Meh, it just didn’t really work out,” he shrugs. “She wanted to settle down and start a family, preferably in a house in a tree, and I wanted to stay in my city and be the rich, eccentric asshole nobody knows and everybody assumes is an asshole.”

“Oh… I see how those could interfere with each other.”

“Yeah, it just wasn’t meant to be. I set her up nice in Colorado though, she’s got a treemansion in the Rockies with all the veggies she could possibly garden and all the peanuts she could possibly butter. I said it before but I’m saying it again, her ants on a log were to fucking die for.”

They finish their lap around the lake and come to a pebbly beach area situated next to a large boulder that Chuck instinctively climbs. Karen follows closely behind him, having a great deal of trouble ascending the slippery rock in her office shoes, but she tops out eventually. You know, after slipping and falling down into the mud like four times. But anyway, she sits next to Chuck as he gazes out across the lake, fog rising above the occasional ‘berg of ice afloat on the murky water. A certain calm takes the air as Chuck and Karen sit and stare for sheer minutes on end before another word is spoken.

Finally, Karen can take it no longer. She scatterblasts the silence into a scintillion pieces, letting it flow away like dust in the icy wind that occasionally blusters by.

“It’s a very eerie day out here today.”

“Shoo is, dahlin’,” Chuck concurs. “I love this weather. There’s just something about a foggy day that gives me a zombie apocalypse vibe, couldn’t tell ya what it is,” as he thinks back to every single interaction he’s ever endured with the braindead consumer base that keeps his metropolis locked and loaded, full steam ahead. Without the buzzing hordes of fat bumbling bees to pollinate them, beautiful flowers would not grow; they’re tough to love, sure, but loved all the while.

“Yeah, sure, me too,” Karen tries. “So… is that why you don’t like Valentine’s Day? Because the thing with Amanda didn’t work out?”

“What?” as he turns to her, lowering his sunglasses just enough to let her know that she sounds one athletic endorsement short of a proper breakfast nutbar. “No, she has nothing to do with it at all.”

Chuck looks back out across the lake, not a single disturbance in the mirroresque surface of the water. Then, “My Mom used to take me here when I was a kid.”

Karen’s caught so off guard that she almost takes a tumble off the rock. Once composed, she looks back at her boss, his stoic face carved from fleshy marble. He stares ahead, not looking at anything in particular, just looking. A few ducks swim across the middle of the lake, trailing a ripple through the water behind them. Natural serenity disturbed by peaceful chaos. Karen whips her phone out and snaps a picture of the baby ducks before looking back at Chuck and slowly putting her glass rectangle away.

Through a clear throat, “So uh, did you guys come here a lot?”

“Nope,” Chuck says once he steps out from the other end of a contemplative silence. “Not as far as I can remember, at least. She’d only take me here when she felt like it… well, when her medicine had her feeling it. It was prob’ly… I don’t know, every now’n’then? And every Easter. She’d hide eggs all over the park for me to find.”

Chuck looks down at the lake-sized waves splashing up against his boulderic seat, trying to find meaning in it all.

“Oh… well, at least you guys got to spend that time together. My mom would take me to parks when I was little, too, and flea markets. But um, we’re not talking about flea markets, so… anyway, she’d only bring me out and about when she wanted to walk around with her friends and their dogs. She’d always tell me she was gonna to get me a leash so I could be like one of the dogs, I hated that. She was always joking but still, she still said the words.”

Karen chuckles. Chuck doesn’t.

Her attempt to lighten the mood utterly thwarted, Karen opts to look down at whatever Stoicism is looking at, and that’s when she sees it – a lil’ crawdad, struggling to walk over the pebbley shore as it gets battered and battered again by splish after splash of water.

After a moment of observation, Chuck says, “Ironic, isn’t it? The little guy needs water to survive, but right now, all the water is doing is making his life harder.”

Karen looks up at Chuck and gives him a little smile. “Yeah, it’s pretty ironic.”

“It is indeed,” as Chuck stands up and dusts the nothing off his suit. He appears as a sole yellow beacon piercing through the fog rising from the lake, almost like a lighthouse with a purple necktie tied ‘round the base of the lantern. “Let’s get going, we’ve a couple places to be still.”

The humoids climb down the boulder, one much more gracefully than the other, and when Chuck slaps the slush off his ass, they make their way back into the forested section of the park. The jetpack rigs stand where they were left, completely undisturbed like the myriad vines handing down from the damp, mossy trees around them. Karen chances a glance down as the jetpack is melding to her body and notices the weathered wooden seat of an old swing beaten into the ground by years of time passing and once young park-goers growing old and losing care of what was once important to them. She traces the invisible rope up to a branch dangling above her and notices two metal loops screwed into the bark, the sight quickly stolen from her as the jetpack lifts her into the sky behind Mister Leary. She wonders if Chuck’s mom ever pushed him on that swing, but decides not to ask; a scar forms to protect a vulnerable wound, not to be ripped open again.

The unlikely pair glides through the sky due north long enough to pass an entire triangular flock of geese headed southbound for the upcoming spring. In a flash of genius, Karen realizes two things: one, she’s allowed a bird’s eye view of a bunch of birds right now, like, what are the chances, and two, there’s always more geese on one side of the flock because there’s an even number of birds, not an odd. One at the top to lead and one at the bottom to keep the flock going; she thinks they’d make a good pair, if either would consider such a thing.

Meanwhile, Chuck already touched down and is looking up at the sky, watching the flock of geese fly circles with Karen. It’s the little things, it really is.

The geese, having grown tired of playing with the Karen, allow her to land as they head for what Chuck sees as the horizon. Karen’s vision goes dark as the suit powers down and the helmet melts back into the jetpack, exposing her to a dilapidated and overgrown sign reading FOREST ECOSYSTEM in big letters, scored in the same font as the title of the Triassic Park movies. She looks around but instead of finding more relics of the past, she sees only trees and shrubberies growing out of a cracked and destroyed taffy belt of asphalt that’s surely seen better days. She goes to ask Chuck where they are, but he’s already began walking, so she does a little jog thing to catch up to him.

“Dude wait up, where are we?”

“This, Karen, is Forest Ecosystem. Or rather, what used to be.”

“Yeah. I got that impression. What is it, though?”

“It used to be a little zoo kinda thing, but not exactly. It was more like a wild safari park, you’d drive your car through and the track would dip in and out of the animals’ cages every now and again. You could walk through too, but the walking path didn’t go inside with the animals because… well, for reasons that I think are pretty fucking obvious, but I’ll let you figure that out for yourself. Besides, nobody really ever used it.”

“Oh wow, that’s pretty cool. I guess they just had animals from,” as she makes an all-encompassing gesture towards the forest with her hands, “around here? Like, deer and squirrels and stuff?”

Chuck chuckles. “Yeah, they had some deer and the occasional squirrel would break in and steal some of the food, but for the most part it was all exotic animals. Lions, elephants, giant killer desert worms with a taste for human flesh from the Gobi, a polar bear or two, giraffes… it was really cool. Not pretty cool, but really cool.”

They follow an aged dirt road, walking along the path of grass that’s emerged where tire tracks dared not tread when the road was treaded upon, venturing deeper into the piece of humanity nature just recently had the pleasure of repossessing. Old rusty chain link fences present no matter where Karen looks, ruined concrete statues and shattered wooden gazebos dot the landscape like paint chips dot the planks of soakrotted wood fallen to the forest floor. They follow the road as it swirls in and out of exhibits, Chuck’s mind wandering back to a different time, one when he was driven down this path to gaze at the majestic creatures; he can almost hear their shrieks for help and fearful growls. Younger Chuck would always wonder how the staff kept the animals so happy that they would want to live here.

Today, he knows the answer. The animals had no choice.

They come upon a vertically large enclosure with black plastic wrapped around it, the underlying links of chain poking small holes through the shroud. As they approach, a nose-crinkling smell rapes Karen’s olfactory bulb, I mean really presses it into the dirt, savage.

“Oh my fucking god, what is that stench?” as she grabs her nose and shuts her eyes, taking a few steps back.

“This is the pterodactyl exhibit. Just kidding, this is where they kept the giraffes. My Mom loved these things, they were so calm and peaceful, just gracefully trodding through the tall grass, eating leaves and stuff to their hearts’ content. Mom liked the spots in their fur too… or should it be hair? Whatever, words are fucking stupid, you know what I mean.”

Chuck looks into the sky for a moment, then, “She would always say that she could see the spots moving when she looked at them, but I never noticed it when we came here.”

“Ohhh, I seeee,” says Karen, beginning to notice something of a pattern. “I hate to interrupt the moment, but what in the fuck is that smell, boss? I feel like I’m gong to puke, it’s so nasty. Skin-peeling, even.”

“Trust me, you really don’t want to know,” as Chuck turns and begins walking back from whence they came.

Unfortunately for Karen, her cat’s about to get killed.

“Hold up,” as she stomps her right foot like a mother doe trying to ward off a coyote. Or a wolf. “I do want to know, actually. That’s kind of why I asked.”

Chuck stops alive in his tracks. “You sure?”

One eyebrow raised, “Yeah… I mean, I think so.”

“All right, fine.”

Chuck walks back over to the pen and extends his right hand with all but his pointed finger curled in, as if he just got a manicure and he was checking out the artwork. The top of his pointer finger opens up and melts into the spout of a lit blowtorch, pillar of fire included at no extra cost. He holds it close to the plastic and reverse-welds the outline of a circle, holding the cutout to the fence with his other hand.

“Last chance, Karen. We can just walk away, right now.”

“No, no I’m already invested in this. I need to know.”

Chuck sighs, saying, “Ohhhh-kaaayyy,” as he rips away the two-dimensional sphere of plastic and fencing. “Feast your eyes.”

Karen steps up, eager to bear witness to the gross-ass mushroom or super weird flower that’s causing the hair in her noseholes to burn away. Upon bearing said witness, Karen immediately turns around and guns it into the woods.

What scared her? Well, you probably don’t want to know either, but since Karen’s character is supposed to be a parallel of you, the hypothetical reader (bullshitting you, don’t worry, or am I? you’ll never know), I’ll tell you what she saw. It’s a pile of decomposing zoo animal carcasses, unfortunately, left over by the owners after they were forced to close the park following an incident involving a lion, a cheese grater, and the worst linguini you could ever imagine.

Chuck eventually catches up to Karen and leads her back to the jetpacks, Karen wiping the tears from her eyes the entire way. Chuck tries reminding her that he warned her, but she just punches him a bunch of times. Such is life.

The image of the pile that Karen only laid her eyes on for half a second is almost totally burned into her memory by the time the two hit the restaurant. It took them about a half hour to find the jetpacks and fly over here, but the transition scene was silent and uneventful, so I skipped over it. Sue me. Anyway, they leave their jetpacks on the roof and rappel down the side of the building, walking out onto the street as if by routine. The hostess waiting outside the restaurant begins to question the pair, making demands about a reservation, but upon recognizing Chuck’s scowl she shakes his hand and leads them inside.

The interior is dimly lit, the candlelight and dimmer switches somewhat authenticating the romantic vibe aloft inside Le Voyage. Chuck and Karen are led through the restaurant’s dining hall, getting a quick glimpse of what everyone else is chowing on before they’re brought into a greenhouse and sat at a table on a raised platform in the middle of a very colorful and well-kept garden. Sprouting from the soil is everything from roses to chrysanthemums, purple basil to oregano, lion’s mane to gymnopilus junonius. The kitchen sources all of its ingredients from this garden and this garden alone, it saves a ton on costs and gives all the food an unmistakable homey feel. Plus, the more important patrons are invited to eat their food among the produce, the garden itself acting eagerly as a waste bin for the compostable garbage.

The waitress brings out a mason jar filled to the brim with a dark green liquid for Chuck, and for Karen, a cup of mud that smells to be hot cocoa. Chuck asks their waitress to give them a moment before ordering and she serves it to them on a silver platter as she walks back to the main dining hall.

Chuck picks up his menu and begins looking it over, flipping through the pages as if this is first time eating at Le Voyage and he doesn’t know exactly what he’ll be getting. Karen stares at him as he does this, not even bothering to open her menu to see the lack of words printed on the pages. She can tell Chuck has a history with this place, presumably because his mother used to take him here when he was younger. She wants to ask him about it, but she doesn’t want to be intrusive; besides, he’s bound to bring it up sooner or later, dude’s an impenetrable dome until he isn’t. After a sip of her magic hot cocoa, Karen picks up the laminated pamphlet and opens it up, looks it over quickly, and closes it, immediately placing it back on the table.

“Okay, I’ll bite. What the hell, man?”

Chuck looks up from his menu and, “What?”

“What is this place? You show your teeth to the lady out front and she bring us back here, serves us drinks that are really freaking tasty, an–”

“I know right? You should try my Cannagin, untouchable. After your dialogue is finished, anyway.”

“…Anyway, what is this place? Why are we being treated like royalty? Why do they just know to give you weedy drinks? And why are there no words on the menu, that part’s really bothering me.”

When he finishes his sip of Cannagin, Chuck calmly sets his jar on the table. He cracks his knuckles and then his neck before folding his hands patiently.

“Karen, this isØ”

“The restaurant your mom used to take you?”

Chuck falsifies being impressed. And surprised. “Well bravada, mademoiselle. Beginning to notice a pattern, are we?”

Karen, arms crossed and her poutiest face primed and geared up, answers, “Yes. Maybe. I don’t know, it depends on what this place actually is.”

Chuck smiles. Not his usual you’re about to eat shit smile, but a genuine, sincere smile. This alone takes Karen by surprise, forget about what dude’s about to say.

Speaking of which, “You’re right, this is the restaurant my Mom would bring me to a lot as a kid, exclusively, even. And it was our tradition after the annual Christmas Eve shopping trip. It’s– well, it was her restaurant; she opened it herself, let me pick out exactly who we hired.”

“Wow, I didn’t know your family was in the food business. Is that how you got all your money?”

Chuck, in the middle of a sip of Cannagin, does a spit take all over the Cannabis plants growing to his left.

“No, no, nonono. I got my money from my father as some kind of, not in these words, atonement for the horrific torture he put me through ever since he had the misfortune of bringing me into the world. My family is definitely not in the food business. Other than this exquisite establishment, the only place of eats that I own is That Mom And Pop Shop that sells the cinnamon buns down the road from the Cape compound, and I hardly own that. I just pay all their bills because their buns are bombastic… have you ever tried that place, by the way?”

“Nah, I’ll probably get to it in a couple years.”

Karen sips her cocoa, the melted marshmallows floating along the surface getting stuck to her upper lip. It results in a gnarly ‘stache of ‘mallow, truly gruesome.

“You want to hear something crazier? She wasn’t even my real Mom, air quotes around the real.”

Chuck pauses for Karen to do a spit take herself, but the news apparently didn’t hit her as hard as he hoped it would. She’s just sitting there, looking at him… expectantly!

“Fine, don’t gasp or as anything. I’ll just explain it.”

Karen smiles.

“So, her name was Delilah, Delilah Leary. She didn’t give birth to me, didn’t really raise me, per say, but she was the only adult who paid me any attention growing up. And I mean that literally, it took

my father, my biological father, almost ten years before he stared calling me Chuck instead of Cuck.”

“BAHAHAHAHAAAAH haaaahahahah hahah hah, ohhh, ohhh god, oh you’re serious, ohhh no.”

Chuck waits until Karen is done before continuing. “So, yeah, she wasn’t my Mom. She wasn’t even married to my dad, jus– hey, by the way, Leary isn’t even my dad’s real last name. He made me change mine to Leary so he could avoid being associated with me on a familial basis.”

“Woah.”

“So my dad had this cabal of women he’d keep around the estate – he called them his Ditzies – and they could do whatever they wanted, they just had to answer to his every beck and call. It was funny, the more of them he hired, the less uh, the less work they would have to do, if you catch my drift. You catching it? Well, just in case you’re not, some of them were whores. Like literal, actual whores, a good sixty-eight percent of them. He met them in brothels that he’d visit in other countries, but not all the Ditzies were dirty, stinking, morally rotten, gross whorehouse whores. Some of them were clean about it, but regardless, they were all genuinely good human beings… especially Delilah.”

The waitress comes back and asks what the notcouple would like to dine on. Chuck holds up the menu and points to an image on the second page. Karen and the waitress go back and forth for a minute, Karen asking what each item is and the waitress explaining each dish to Karen in fluent French. By the time Karen gives up and just gets whatever Chuck is having, Chuck is finished with his herbal concoction and orders another one.

“Thank you both, your dishes will be served posthaste,” says the waitress as she collects the menus, winking at Karen as she leaves.

Karen, mouth agape, “Un-fucking-believable. Ugh. Anyway, so your father had Ditzies?”

“Yes, yes he did. He sought out women who were really, really into one thing, that was kind of his thing. He liked when a girl was extremely, passionately interested in something, didn’t matter what the thing was. He had one lady who could paint donkeys on the sides of bovines like you wouldn’t fucking believe, it was incredible… anyway, so Delilah joined the troupe around the time I was four years old, I think, and her thing was Psychedelics.”

Karen, all traces of surprise long gone from her face, is not surprised. “You know, that explains so much.”

“You don’t know the half of it, this restaurant? Le Voyage? It’s French for The Trip. The menu only has pictures on it because she felt like it was harder to deal with words when she was high, which was always. Also, they cook Magic Mushrooms into a bunch of the food, including the dish you just ordered. So hah!”

“Ugh,” as Karen’s eyes do a barrel roll. “You can eat mine then, I don’t want to do drugs today.”

“I’m totally cool with that, but uh… I’d stop drinking the cocoa if I were you.”

“…What ?

“But anyway, yeah she was my favorite of the Ditzies because she actually paid attention to me. She would talk to me every day that she saw me, she’d hold my hand and take me for walks through that park before, tell me bedtime stories, hug me when I was having a bad day, or week, or eternal, everlasting existence. She was a gem, truly one of a kind. I never even knew she was tripping all the time until I was like nineteen, boy did that blow my mind.”

“Is she the reason you eat psychedelics all the time now?”

“Um, no. What? No, the two are totally unrelated. I don’t know why, or, or even how for that matter, you could come to such a silly conclusion.” He looks back towards the door, then, “Ah, there she is!”

Karen nearly breaks her neck looking over, half expecting to see miss Delilah herself. Instead it’s just the waitress with two gigantic slices of Magic Mushroom pizza and a mason jar full of Cannagin. She sets them down on the table, does a curtsy, and then leaves the patrons to patronize. Karen immediately slides her slice, and her cocoa, over to Chuck, his eyes lighting up like the end of a fat cone joint, sans canoe. He picks up the first slice, creating a foot-long cheese string, and raises the moresel to his mouth before pausing.

“Before I start eating and… well, anyway, is there anything else you want to know?”

Phrased as a statement, “What do you mean.”

“I mean, you’ve been asking me questions all day. Are there any more before you stop communicating with me and start communing with me?”

“Well, I meant that in the sense of What do you mean eat, you’re really going to trip in the restaurant with me here? But now I mean, What questions?

“There you go, see? You just asked two more, I bet you didn’t even mean to.”

“YOU FUCkin’… okay, uhhh… I don’t know. I guess not.”

Chuck WHOOPs before shoving as much cheese, sauce, dough, and Psilocybin-loaded fungi into his mouth as he possibly can. He thinks he hears Karen say something, but his sheer enjoyment of Delilah Leary’s favorite dish completely overpowers his hearing.

Then, “Whah?”

“I said, you never told me why you loathe Valentine’s Day. Pay up, chump.”

“You wait until now to ask me this? Now? Very potent ‘Shrooms are brought up here Karen, I’m going to be on a different fuckin’ planet in a matter of fifteen minutes, and I still have a shit ton more to eat. Fuckin’, this chick…”

“So you hate the holiday because you brought me here today specifically…?”

Chuck looks at Karen with a face that screams are you a fucking loaf of bread?

“No,” sip, “I hate Valentine’s Day because it’s her birthday. My Mom, Delilah. It was also the last day I ever saw her.” Swallow.

“Oh… well I didn’t know that,” says Karen, her voice slightly shrinking near the end of her sentence. She folds her hands on the table and looks down at her lap, then up at the greenhouse ceiling, then at some lovely Salvia Divinorum plants a’grow in the soil with cute little purple flowers, then back at Chuck, who’s compressing more funnyfood into his body. “What happened?”

Chuck finishes his work on the first slice before answering, but when he does, “I, ppshhhh hahahahah, sorry, I neither want to nor will tell you the story, but the jetpack? The jetpack, with that helmet thing, it has a thing built into it. Uh, aye um… aayyeeeee… memory broadcaster! Yeah, that’s it. It like, it taps into your mind and like… well, it doesn’t just have the memory broadcaster, you can play video games and watch movies and shit when you fly, but uh… what was I… YES! So the memory broadcaster, it lets you relive another human’s memories, like, in a sorta simulationish kind of way. All wireless too. Matta’ fact, I’m gonna make mine broadcast me in a five-dimensional swathe of colors whilst I fly around in the open air for a few hours once we’re cubed away here. Speakin’a’which…” as he picks up the second slice, not bothering to finish the sentence.

‘Yeesh, they are potent,’ Karen thinks to herself as she watches a grown man dive into a slice of pizza like an Itlaian werewolf who works at a pizza parlor and only turned a quarter of the way because the moon is still waxing crescent. After a few more mouthful-and-a-halfs, Karen manages to break through the maelstrom of chewing.

“So what’s that have to do with me getting the story?”

Chuck looks at his Karen The Secretary for a moment, unsure of what to say. After swallowing his current mouthful, he says, “Oh, you didn’t catch it? I had Sigmund scan my brain and copy over all of my deepest, darkest memories, and then all the other ones, too. You’re going to relive my memory, because I sure as shit ain’t gonna do it by telling you the story. Haaaaard fuckin’ pass. Look, I’m not gonna lie, I had Sigmund install the thing so whenever I’m working with a privileged little shit of a businessmonkey in a human suit who thinks they know shit about Existence, I can take them on a jetpack joyride and trick them into living my entire life up until a randomly specific point where I cut it off, all in a span of ten minutes our time. You’re not one of those, and I’m sure this doesn’t really make sense now, but it will later because it’s cool.”

“Um… I uh… I don’t really want to experience You: The Video Game boss, I’m not gonna lie here.”

“Nonono, I wasn’t going to make you. C’mon Karen, I don’t hate you that much. I was just going to show you the last time I saw my Mom. So you can know what happened, like, literally.”

“Oh, that’s… okay, I can do that. When are we going?”

“Look at my plate,” Chuck says, the confidence in his eyes as visible as the obscene dilation of his left pupil.

Karen looks down and, to her absolute astonishment, the second slice is gone. “How the fuck did you eat that entire thing already?”

Chuck looks at her funny, asking, “Who wants to know? You, or the chinchilla sitting on your shoulder?”

They leave the restaurant rapidly, Chuck managing to come off as completely and totally so– well, as sober as Chuck ever could be, for the entire walk through the front room. He even makes pleasant conversation with the hostess, speaking clear and fluid French the entire time.

Once they swing around the corner, climb the ropes to the roof, and reach the jetpacks, “Karen. I don’t know how to speak French, I-I-I don’t know what just happened in there, like, I need to get aawayyy from civilizatioonnnn. NNNOOOOWWWWWW.”

“Oh my god… you set up my jetpack vee-are thingy, right?”

“Yeah, no, yeah it was set up before we even left this morning. I was originally going to take your jetpack, but you evidently like the color yellow, too, so I just let you take it. Call it a coincidence, I don’t know. But yeah, your disk drive’s open. Throw the bitch in and hit play.”

Chuck merges with the pink jetpack and they take off into the sky so Chuck’s consciousness can merge with the Universe for a few hours instead of reliving the Delilah memory for the umpteenth year in a row, the very memory Karen’s about to taste.

Karen, once she can no longer hear her boss’s mundane squawks of bliss, walks over to the other jetpack and steps in front of it. The suit and straps extend, grabbing at her body and encasing her in a suit of bulletproof buffoonery. The helmet overtakes her face and she sees a screen pop up. It reads:

|INITIALIZING|

After a few moments, a map appears indicating the machine is set to autopilot back to the Cape Enterprises, Uncorporated building, alongside a list of stuff for Chuck to do when he gets back. Meaning stuff for Karen to do when she gets back, naturally.

She blinks once, signaling that she accepts, and the screen goes blank again. Her brain follows, the consciousness syphoned right out of her body and merged with the copy of Chuck’s consciousness in the machine before both are replaced into Karen’s hollow shell.

|THE CHUCK YOUTH FILES|
|FINAL ENTRY – V-DAY|
|PAUSED|
|RESUMING|
|… … …|

Delilah

He’s faced with a flat wooden door labeled 7-10 in etched numerals on a scratched golden-brass plaque. Chuck looks down, brushing a speck of dust off his specially tailored yellow suit.

‘Oh shit, that’s the suit he was wearing today.’

He straightens his matching yellow necktie, mailed to him by Delilah on his last birthday, before putting a hand on the door handle and freezing. He takes an anxious breath, inhaling deep through his nose and slowly out through his mouth. His opposite hand knocks on the door a few times.

“Mm-Mom? Delly? It’s me, can I come in?”

A moment of silence. “Who’s that, now?”

“Me, it-it’s me, Chuck. I know it’s been a couple of years, but I uh, I wanted to come an–”

He’s interrupted when the door opens in front of him. An elderly woman, a daffodil poking out from beneath her long gray hair that shines like silver, steps into the doorway.

“Oh my, oh my goodness! Chucky!”

She embraces him in a hug, Karen can feel the love, very warm.

“It’s been too long darling, please! Come in!”

They walk in together and Chuck is sat in a loveseat with roses embroidered into the fabric. It’s a small room, yellow wallpaper. A few windows show an excellent view of the landscape surrounding the facility. One’s cracked open with an ashtray sitting on the sill, still a’smoke with a roach from a freshly burned joint left to siz’ out. Delilah sits down on a squeaky couch with a tapestry draped over it across a small glass-top coffee table from Chuck. She opens a plastic amber bottle, one you’d spill pills from, and holds it upside-down above her hand. A smaller bottle with an eyedropper lid falls out.

Delilah catches it.

“I have some liquid Delysid, darling! We can take this together, finally! After all those years of you tripsitting me… oh, this has been such a long time coming.”

Chuck takes the bottle out of her hand and places it on the table. “Delilah, I… I have some capsules in my pocket, they’re specially designed by a friend of mine. They’ll uh… they’ll make you sober, like, completely sober. I want to talk to you, the real you, the clear-minded you. Not high you, not tripping you, just you. And then we can do the eL-eSs-Dee.”

Delysid, darling! Have some respect. I don’t know how good of an idea that is though, doll. It’s been… it’s been a long time since I was sober, and for good reason. I get al–”

“Mom, it’s me. It’s just you and me here, it’s going to be okay. Please?”

“Well… all right baby, for you.”

Chuck takes out a pill bottle of his own and holds it above his hand. Two circular white flavorless candies tumble out. He eats one of them before giving the other to his sortaMom, saying, “I’ll even take one too, so you know we’re on even ground.”

Delilah seems amused by this. She giggles and takes her candy.

“I trust you honey, I could smell your sobriety from the moment you walked into the building.” She pops the pill, no water, then, “Chucky, your old friend Del’ is… oh, oh my. I’m… sober.”

The look on Delilah’s face goes from one of carefree bliss to one laden with emotional numbness, all the feelings and memories and everything from the seventy-year trip she just ended flood into her very soul like a torrent of muddy water after the beavers who dam off the lake died from the asinine levels of runoff and toxins in the water. She zones out, submerged in the hellish ocean of a massive reality check, one that she was hoping to avoid until the day of her death. The sound of Chuck’s voice eventually fades in over the screaming inside her head and breaks her from her trance.

“What was that, Chucky? I’m sorry, I zoned out for a second, this is all so… just so much.”

“Oh, no problem. I said me and that friend I mentioned earlier started a company together. I took some convincing, but he’s a really smart dude, he came around. His name’s Sigmund, he’s a lil’ weird but I don’t mind him. He’s very talented, science-wise.”

Karen hears the words, ‘My goodness, he sounds exactly like his father. His father… his father, that man Magnus… that… wretched man’ as if she thought them, but she definitely didn’t think them.

“Well that’s great, dear!” Delilah says, absentmindedly picking at her cuticles. “What do, what are you doing with this business?”

“So we’re basically an science-slash-silent-partner company, we want to get to the point where we own a few firms and then we’re probably going to either sell and go our separate ways with big ol’ checks, or we’ll invest in a big tower so Sigmund can do his science experiments without any douchey Cee-eEe-Oh telling him what to do. I mean, I technically own the company and he’s technically my only employee, but I let him do what he wants, I trust the dude. We’re going to call it Cape Enterprises, I think the name is kinda dumb but I couldn’t come up with anything better. Plus, Sigmund won the coin toss, so, yanno.”

‘No fucking shit,’ Karen thinks to herself.

Chuck shrugs his shoulders, then, “I don’t really know what I wanna do with my life yet. Like, I don’t even know if I want to do anything with my life in the first place, I’m just kind of… here. But that’s not a bad thing, I have all the money and I have a place to live, so it could be worse.”

“Well I’ll be, little Chuck living the corporate lifestyle.”

“Ohhhh no, participating. I do not intend on staying, this isn’t for me. I would call the company Cape Enterprises Uncorporated if I could, but, yanno. Gruncle Fred and all.”

Karen hears the words, ‘Well that doesn’t sound like Magnus… good,’ as if she thought them, but she didn’t… again. Could Chuck hear this shit back then?

“No?” Delilah asks out loud, “Why not, dear?”

“You have to constantly step on other humans, use them as tools, as objects, as means to an endless end, all just to stay on top. It’s just too much effort, too much debauchery. And not the good kind.”

Chuck leans back and takes a sip of a water bottle he had in an inside pocket in his coat. He offers the bottle to Delilah, but she seems to be entranced again, staring at the floor.

After draining the bottle, “Delly? You with me?”

She shakes her head and looks up at Chuck, offering a gentle smile. “Yes baby, I’m here. I’m just… I’m… I’m so sorry. I saw so much of what happened when you were younger, how you were treated. What influences you were forced to be around. I could have said something, did something, I… I just don’t know what to say.”

Karen feels Chuck’s face express surprise for a moment, then it drops to a slight frown. “No, I-I, I wasn’t… don’t be sorry, you had nothing to do with it. You were one of the good parts, you being on the medicine all the time gave me hope that somewhere, someone wasn’t being a total asshole. And that was important to me. That’s… that’s not even why I came here, Mom. I’m fine, look at me.”

She looks at him. Karen feels the look. “I know, but I’m so s–”

“HEY! Hey uh, hey, hey you know what? I’m kind of thirsty, do you want uh, do you wanna drink?”

Delilah freezes, her eyes locked into Chuck’s. She’s looking not at him but through him, into his spirit, into his past, into the very core of his being. She can read the poor kid like a book, Karen can tell, and she’s terrified, nay, devastated by what she sees.

‘Wait… what does she see? Karen thinks to herself.

Chuck gets up and goes in the kitchen through an open doorway, grabbing two of the white plastic cups out of the lower cupboard and filling them up from the tap.

After clearing his throat and then clearing it again, “Yeah, the corporate thing is kinda whatever. I don’t really like forcing myself to be fake around other humans all the time, ya know? I don’t want to have to act a certain way to be taken seriously, it’s so… blah. It’s whatever. Eventually I’ll be high enough up the ladder where I can just be me, that’ll be nice. Until then though, if then ever happens…”

Chuck shakes his head, disorienting Karen a bit. Then, “Oh well, it’s what my uh, it’s what my dad would want, so… yanno…”

No answer from Delilah, only silence and a slight breeze that’s drowned out by the sound of a slow stream of water. When the cups are filled and the automatic sink decides to automatically turn off, Chuck returns to the incense-scented air of the living room, but finds no Delilah. On the table, laid out among the bottles and baggies of various Psychedelic treats and flips, is a single piece of paper. Chuck picks it up and reads it aloud, taking a moment to decipher the shaky handwriting.

“Please… forgive me… for everything…? What the fuck?”

Chuck lets go of the note, letting it fall to the table in a drifty fashion. A frosted chill ripples through his shoulders, causing him to look up and notice the once cracked window is now opened all the way, the ashtray nowhere to be found.

‘That’s odd,’ Chuck thinks to himself, Karen hearing his voice in her head like it was her own.

Chuck stands up and nearly trips over the coffee table. He walks over to the window and pauses for a moment, looking straight ahead, before placing his hands on the sill. He takes a long, deep breath, the inhale creeping through his nose and slowly out through his mouth. He peers over the edge.

A golden finch flies from its nest, leaving a single yellow feather to fall from its wings. Chuck follows the feather as it falls, swaying back and forth in the wind, drifting daintily like the first snowflake foreshadowing the encroachment of a very dark and cold winter.

The Delysid calls Chuck from the sill. Karen hears its voice.

|SIMULATION FIN|